It was dusk when the six men in their skull caps entered the stark, white room. They washed their hands and put on hazmat suits, removing rings and watches. Under the fluorescents there was no time, no waxing moon, no shadows. They could have been asleep and dreaming. Just sinks and cabinets and hoses and metal tubs, the dead man on a table at its center. The met was laid out under a white sheet. He had a big belly—the sheet swelled like a breaching whale. That could mean trouble when they had to turn him over or lift him. There were five to do the job while Abe read the liturgy, but they were all old men.
It fell to Jack to do the preliminary inspection of the dead man. Jack was a used car salesman, sparsely red‑haired, brown island continents between the thickets on his scalp. He was a child of Polish immigrants, grew up with Yiddish and Polish, but lost them for English in grade school. He lifted the sheet, and immediately there was trouble. Though he made no sound, the men saw him startle. He had made a little tent of the white sheet so that only he could see underneath it.
Abe looked up from his prayer book. “What?”
Sammy, who stood beside Jack, cocked his head down to peek. “Oy gevald geshrign gefilteh fish und lukshn!” An old-world plaint, half whimsical, roughly: Chopped, stuffed, screaming fish and noodles! Sammy was mischievous that way. Arched bow of a man, once athletic, still nimble, one eyebrow fixed at full mast above a flagging countenance that somehow continued to turn ladies’ heads, he liked to outrage while maintaining deniability. An illusionist.
Abe tugged up an edge and looked for himself. Abe was seventy-something, face like wet towels on a drying rack, body a shrink-wrapped tangle, guy who’d had a desk job his whole life and looked it. Grey skin. Nervous leg syndrome. Tappity, tappity. A second after tugging it up, he dropped the sheet and closed his eyes. “Give me strength.”
The others poked in.
Only Ben had nothing to say. The baby, merely fifty-eight. Unlike the others, he was unaffiliated, belonged to no wife, no synagogue, a freelance Jew, a shavepate and beardless, with shifty eyes and rumpled, mismatched clothes, but ardent. He had a part-time job delivering meat for a butcher shop, made enough to get by and left it at that, slept in a rented cellar room.
Isaac shrugged. A boiled skinned egg was Isaac, nose to Abe’s breast bone, in a flannel shirt buttoned all the way up, suspenders on soft, ample pants, his damp eyes peering up. “Maybe it’s not so bad.”
“I can’t do this.” Abe shut his book.
Sammy said, “Oh, come on, he’s still a Jew—“
“We have an obligation to the family.”
“Why didn’t they tell us? And this he wants, the last thing, when he didn’t bother with the first?”
“The man didn’t have a say. What, at eight days old, he should have stood up, offered his schvantz and said, ‘Hey, what about it?’”
“Watch your mouth. His father should have taken care of it, or if not his father, his mother. You know, when Moses was going back into Egypt, he stopped with his wife, Zipporah, at an inn—this is what the Bible says, this is not just Abe opinionizing here—and God tried to kill him, it says, to kill him, k-i-l-l kill him, kill Moses, yes, that’s what it says, and because why? Because he had neglected to circumcise his little son, is why. And Zipporah picked up a flint and did it for him, and she threw the foreskin at Moses’ feet, and she saved his life.”
“That was three thousand years ago,” said Sammy.
“No, it’s right now. That thing, that’s for Gentiles, not for us. It’s repulsive.”
“It looks like a frosting nozzle,”—Jack, lost in contemplation—“what the bakers use to squiggle a wedding cake.”
“I never thought of that.” Ben wrinkled his brow.
David: “Should we be talking about this here?” David was new. He was the tallest of them, thin, hairless, big-lipped, smooth as a tongue.
“Right. Respect for the met,” Sammy said.
“I can’t do it.” Tappety tappety.
“He can’t do it! You want us to call Luke?” Luke was the funeral home functionary, like a shabbos goy—the worker who, unfettered by religious duties, is free to turn on lights or boil water on the Sabbath—except that Luke’s family owned the place. He stored away the crucifixes when a dead Jew arrived and the Stars of David when the Christian corpses came.
“Call Rabbi Solomon,” David suggested.
“Oh, you know what he’ll say,” Abe shot in, “that people-pleaser. Is there one commandment of the six hundred thirteen that our esteemed young rabbi would not break for the sake of some congregant’s composure?”
“Abe,” Jack bleated, “take it easy.”
“I think it’s a good idea.” Sammy nodded to David, who could not help smiling back.
“You’re just trying to get my goat because Lillian—oh, never mind,” said Abe, “you’re just trying to get my goat.”
Ben hazarded a glance at Abe, then at Sammy, who seemed hurt and angry, but Abe caught Ben at it, and Ben lowered his gaze to the dead man again.
For a full minute, no one spoke. There was only the rushing sound of the morgue’s overhead fan and the tremor of Abe’s heel.
Rabbi Solomon finishes praying in front of Abe’s grave. According to custom, he leaves a pebble on the gravestone—simple, like everything about the Jewish dead. Nothing can accompany a dead man into the grave, with the single exception of his old prayer shawl, if he has one, and even that has to be prepared—humbled, one might say, or circumcised—by lopping off some of its fringes. We’re not talking about an Egyptian with beaked gods and an afterlife to bring things along to, the rabbi thinks. We’re talking about a Jew. Aside from his God, a dead Jew needs nothing, and nothing is allowed him. Nothing would help him. His God is everything. God is sufficient. Look: there is Abe’s wife, Lillian. For the first time, inspecting a little more carefully than usual, the Rabbi notices that a part of her Hebrew name is misspelled. He will have to contact the stone mason about that—it isn’t the first time. He leaves a pebble. Where is Mrs. Overbeck’s grave? End of the next row, if memory serves. Here comes Ben, that strange old fellow who lives underground and delivers meat for Sbarsky’s. He is drifting through the graveyard, giving everything an odd look-see, the trees and the fallen fence posts as much as the graves themselves. He seems to be listening to the seethe and whoosh of the lake half a mile away. Not a congregant. The Rabbi hopes he will keep to himself and let him do the same. Ben seems to be everywhere. Ben passes through walls and has been known to materialize in a sheet of rain. Ben sleeps on the moon, most likely. There it is, oval, waxing, faint as a watermark on the darkening scroll of sky. Rabbi Solomon concludes that he has been at the graveyard too long and that he must be hungry. He will pray over Mrs. Overbeck next time.
The men stood silently. Abe rasped and sniffed. Ben fiddled near the Dow sticker over his heart, nudging, pulling, and Abe said, “Got an itch?”
“It’s nothing—these plastic suits.”
“It gives you a condition,” Isaac agreed.
“All right, all right.” Abe took a deep breath and commenced to read in Hebrew, then English: “And the Angel answered, and he said to the people standing before him, saying, take the dirty clothes off of him. Behold: I remove your sins, and I dress you in finery.”
They began to wash the dead man.
“Y’know,” Sammy would say at the debriefing in the mortuary’s green room, rolling a half-full shot glass between fat fingers, “when I first joined this outfit, I thought it was a prostitution ring.”
“Whaa?” Abe will half get up from his chair.
“Well, now wait a minute, wait a minute. What’s our name? Chevra Kadisha, yes? Well, that means Brotherhood of the Whores.”
“Of the whaa?”
“Whores, Temple Prostitutes, hierodules, what have you. That’s what a kadayshah is in Hebrew, like when Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law near the end of Genesis, when she dresses up like a kadayshah to fool him—like a temple prostitute.”
Abe will curl his nose and horse laugh. “I get you. Only, it ain’t Hebrew, it’s Aramaic, you simpleton. It’s got an aleph at the end like the words in the Kaddish. In the Hebrew it wouldn’t be spelt like that. It doesn’t mean whore—it means holy. Holy Brotherhood, OK? What kind of dope are you, anyway, or what kind of a dope do you take me for?”
“I pass.” Sammy socks one back and pours himself another.
Sammy simply wants to have his effect. At the Starbucks where Sammy reads the morning papers and looks at girls, the baristas are aggressively perky. “Do they make you smile like that? Doesn’t it hurt?” he asked one of them, and then he informed her about rictus, the smile—mere anatomy—of a human skull denuded of flesh. She laughed, but it meant nothing—they laughed at anything. It was the Starbucks version of rictus. Another time, when one of the caramelized baristas asked Sammy how his day was going, he told her about the difficulty he had had with a corpse the night before. “You know, I had the job of sponging the fellow’s backside, and the stuff just kept pouring out of him. It stinks when they do that, it almost makes you sick, but you try to be respectful, you know, and you daub and you use up towel after towel, and it’s still pouring out like seepage from a busted drainpipe when it puddles and steams—have you ever seen that, dear?” She wasn’t smiling then. “Two eighty-five,” she said. And Sammy said, “Keep the change, sweetheart.” He had made it all up—not that that sort of thing never happened, but Sammy, clown though he may have been, or trickster or provocateur, knew that it was wrong to say anything at all about an actual specific ceremony. He had just wanted to educate the girl, to remedy her Starbucksian rictus.
“I can’t get over this whole thing,”—Isaac the Peacemaker, shifting to safer ground—“that coffin, that putz . . . “
“Watch your mouth,” says Abe.
“We’re not with the dead man now.” Sammy will sigh loudly and set down the whiskey. “We’re done with it. Relax, can’t you?”
“I did my duty, didn’t I?” Abe will say. “I could have stopped right there, the whole thing. It isn’t right.” Suddenly he squints. Ben has just removed his skull cap, and Abe notices something funny. “You fall on your head or something?”
Ben rubs the bump. “What, this? No. Somebody keeps putting pebbles on my lintel—can you believe it? Or else it’s the wall crumbling. I walk in sometimes, or sometimes I walk out, I open the door, and a stone hits me in the head.”
“Your brick needs chinking, that’s what.”
“That must be it.”
“Be careful, for heaven’s sake.”
Mrs. Overbeck drives the red Ford Fiesta that Jack, the Polish Jew, sold her, a good car, a reliable car, air-conditioned, nice upholstery, comfortable, not German. There was a fellow who, as a toddler, had seen people hanging from lampposts after the war. She bought the Fiesta right off Jack’s lot, a special. Maybe he charged her a little too much—she doesn’t really mind. She has enough to live on. Her Seymour would have bargained Jack down some hundreds of dollars, without a doubt, but the three buckets were poured over Seymour years and years ago. Let’s not dwell on the past. She drives by the laundromat and the pizzeria, and there’s the mortuary where she will sit with the dead. It’s a nice custom. It makes a person a little more comfortable about the whole business, so you don’t feel quite so bewildered and scared. “It’s all being taken care of. It all has a place,” is how Lillian put it, when she recruited Mrs. Overbeck into the work of the sh’mira. Of course it would be a consolation to Lillian, in the marriage she had to put up with, better to spend time with the dead, but Mrs. Overbeck would never say that, and now Lillian herself is dead. Anyway, Lillian was right. It is good. Some of these dead men and women, in their boxes in the little room, Mrs. Overbeck knew, and some she didn’t. She sits just the same, and it makes it nice. It’s been six years since Seymour’s box was pegged shut and his star glued down and his candle lit. Since then, there’s not much to do, especially after her friend Lillian passed away. She doesn’t even feel like bothering to get the screening fixed on the closed-in porch. The Fiesta is nice, however. It has excellent air conditioning, and the red is nice. Look: it’s the middle of the Jewish month, and so the moon, reborn, is just past half, peek-a-boo among the clouds in the rearview mirror. Say the blessing over the waxing moon, the Kiddush Levanah, as Seymour used to: Bless you, Moon, you live again and crown who crowd God’s womb to live again, something like that? Never mind—there’s the parking lot.
Abe read in his faltering Ashkenazi Hebrew, an old truck stuttering up a steep hillside, gas and clutch, while the men uncovered first one of the dead man’s flanks, then the other, exposing only what was being sponged. To reach over the met was forbidden, disrespectful. If Isaac needed a rag from over on Sammy’s side to dry what he’d washed, Sammy had to walk around the met’s feet to deliver it. The men worked quickly and silently.
The dead man’s flesh was cold. Ben thought of the wads of bread dough his father used to keep in the refrigerator for carp bait. His father would let Ben tear off pieces—smooth, cold—and mold them around the fishhooks. But the dead man’s limbs were also supple. When Ben lifted an arm to help roll the dead man onto his side, the fingers felt like living fingers, splaying slightly, one by one, and Ben couldn’t help clasping them with a sort of tenderness. Remember this feeling. The dead man’s back was discolored by an odd pooling of blood, now tide-less, making red and blue-black patches. The buttocks were flat and shrunken, like fallen loaves of bread. The jaw was slack, the mouth open, the face grey, stubbly, the skin shiny and translucent over the cheekbones and jaw. The untrimmed penis sagged aslant one thigh, just like all the other ones, the circumcised ones, that Ben had seen on all the other tables.
“Rein un shein,” whispered Sammy, as if the dead man were a baby and the cold table a bassinet, clean and nice—and the pourers readied their buckets.
The men slipped planks under the dead man to create a channel for the poured water. It was a clumsy business—he was so heavy at the middle. They had to lever and push and pry. At the same time, Abe, reading, began to cough. He stumbled through a few words, then had to stop. He gestured gruffly to Ben. “Rosho ketem paz,” Ben carried on. His head pure gold, his raven locks like palm fronds . . . Ben read lyrically, with kavana, one hand on his heart, but his voice faltered and his eyes filled with tears. Without warning, Abe bulled in again—“That doesn’t help.”—and took over the reading. He nudged Ben to his bucket, and the pouring began, each of three pourers in sequence, slightly overlapping.
The succession of flowing waters must not be broken. If there is a lapse between one pouring and the next, the whole thing has to be done over with three new buckets of water. But that never happens. It’s like a military operation—everyone at the height of alertness, as if a slip would tear the fabric separating life and death, as if there really is a God and He is watching, as if to be a Jew meant, after all, something.
Abe read while the men, circling the met, poured their buckets of water, continuing until the washing was done and the met dried with clean torn rags. While they circumambulated the corpse, the water cascading and splashing, Jack pinched the met’s nose and mouth to keep the water out. All the men chanted: “Tahor hu, tahor hu, tahor hu.”
He is pure, he is pure, he is pure . . .
and Abe thought: “ . . . in a pig’s eye,” but David was nearly howling. “Tahor,” he shrieked, “pure, pure, pure,” until Isaac, having emptied his bucket, laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. It startled David. He seemed not to realize that he had been shouting.
Everyone knew that, before long, they would be pouring the buckets over David. Jack’s wife did accounts receivable at the Kaiser Hospital, and she knew how to piece information together. They suspected that that was why David had joined their association: checking out Death’s territory, like the human cannonball who tests the depth of the sand he’ll land in. David wore a sloppy toupee so black that it looked like fresh paint. It had nothing at all to do with his illness, Jack’s Miriam had informed them, but his complexion, like David’s in the Bible, ruddy as a polished apple, was accomplished with cosmetics to conceal a morbid pallor.
Ben and Luke once had a conversation that none of the others knows about.
“Doesn’t it weigh on you, dealing with death all the time?” Ben leaned against the casement of the backdoor through which the Chevra Kadisha always entered. He had arrived at the mortuary early. “You must think about it, don’t you? You can’t just leave it at the office when you go home, can you?”
Smiling Luke, tall and blonde, stiff white shirt open at the collar, sleeves rolled to mid forearm, was cleaning up odds and ends, moving small objects from one cabinet to another and sorting papers at his hallway desk. Cluttered on the wall above that desk were clipped cartoons and magazine jokes, all making fun of the mortuary business and of death itself. “Actually, yes,”—knocking a stack of note cards flat—“you get used to it. Isn’t that your experience?”
“Me? No. I think about it. I write about it . . . ”
“Write? You mean you keep a diary?”
“No, I write stories—for magazines.”
“Let’s hope so—will I be in one of your stories?”
“Change my name, OK?”
“Always.” A car was pulling into the parking lot just outside the door. Ben spoke quickly: “Anyway, I don’t get used to it. When you look at a dead body, don’t you ever feel it looking back?”
“I hope I don’t sound crazy . . . “
“Not at all. Everybody’s experience is different—sounds like the others are arriving.”
“ . . . but I always feel it. I always forget, for a second or two, which one I am, the dead man or the live one, the one above or the one below . . . “
“You really are a writer, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am, that’s what I am, a writer—so, everybody dies, right? The only question is when. The only difference between me and the corpse is that he died before I have—that, at this particular moment, I’m alive and he is not. That wasn’t true in the past. It won’t be true in the future. It’s just now, for a while. That’s my motif.”
“A piece of advice—don’t go into the mortuary business. You’ve got the wrong attitude.”
“You know, the Biblical Hebrew doesn’t really have tenses like English. There isn’t a past and present and future.”
“Interesting.” Luke opened the morgue door and made a quick visual check of the room. The chemical smell drifted out.
“The prophets use the so-called past tense for the future. What the King James takes for the future tense can mean something happening now or even in the past. There’s a single letter, vov, that can turn time upside-down when it’s stuck onto a verb, make the past future and the future past.”
Someone pressed in at the door. Ben moved aside.
It was Abe. “Everything ready?”
Now he is dried and now he is dressed in the garments of salvation. Now he is a bridegroom, a garden, an eternal spring. Abe reads and wipes his mouth and reads and wipes his mouth. Jack lifts the dead man’s torso, and they struggle to get the shroud on him. David tugs at the cuffs while Sammy grabs a dead arm and pulls, trying for all he’s worth to thread it through the sleeve, but it keeps getting stuck. Like the tide-less blood, the body is all impediment now: a clod, a stone, a pool of scum, subject only to gravity, friction, same as mud. Dumb matter, the dead man’s head sticks up like a tent pole inside the arched fabric. It won’t cooperate. The dead man has the vitality of a clipped prepuce. The difficulty is that one imagines it otherwise, Ben is thinking. Remember this idea. The dead man’s n’shama, his spirit, is supposed to be hovering above his body—that’s why the Chevra Kadisha aren’t allowed to reach across—but the dead man is dumb as dirt. David tugs. David tugs. Sammy clasps dead fingers and pulls. Maybe they should completely undress him and start again, but you always think, this next tug will do it. They should never have let David join them on this. No, be kind—it’s not David’s fault. Be kind to the living, to the dead, what’s the difference, anyway? A few weeks, maybe.
Be kind. Jack, this time, lays his hands on David’s shoulder to console and to coax him away, then takes his place and manages the thing. The dead man’s head and hands appear. Every man knows this feeling: the bolt loosens, the log splits, the pushed car starts. Or not. The living versus the dead.
“I’m sorry,” David says, “sorry, sorry.”
Then the knots. Isaac knows how to tie them over the sash and cuffs to form the letters of the holy name, the shin, the dalet, and the yod—Shaddai, the Almighty, which, as Sammy will not fail to point out over Abe’s Slivovitz at the mahogany table, can also be translated, With Tits. Jack slips the white coverlet over the dead man’s head.
Abe vets the coffin a last time. The men have positioned the dead man’s table on its castors alongside the coffin and are preparing to lift the met into the box and peg down the lid, when David groans horribly. His eyes shoot wide, and he stammers, but no proper word comes out, Yiddish or Hebrew or English.
“What?” Abe says. “What? What?”
“He’s sitting up,” David gargles. “God help me, he’s sitting up.”
Ben clasps his hand over the hazmat tag, over the pocket on his chest.
“It’s a bump,” blurts Isaac.
Abe is having none of it. “Nobody’s doing any sitting.”
“Baruch haba’ah,” Sammy japes. “Blessed is He Who Cometh.”
“Nobody’s doing any cometh-ing. Put him in the box.”
“Maybe he’s sleeping.” David puts in a trembling hand. He is horrified, but he’ll help move the met. He supports the pelvis by clutching the sheet just under it and lifts. Some men’s courage is to do what others fear, and some to do what they themselves fear. The Chevra Kadisha position the body over the wood box. “Maybe we should call the rabbi.”
“Forget the rabbi. Put him in the lousy box.”
“I’ve read about cases like this,” David says. The men lean in to keep the weight of the corpse close to their legs. “He could be alive, couldn’t he, a little bit? He could be sleeping.”
Isaac says, “There. He’s in the box. Here’s his tallis—I’ve cut the fringes.”
“Here are the shards,” says David. “I’ve got them. Who’s gonna put the dust?” He has palmed the little bag of pottery shards from a nearby counter. Trembling, he places the broken bits of clay on the dead man’s lips after Sammy, according to custom, sprinkles the dust over the dead man’s eyes, his heart, and the troublesome unpruned organ. More, David, before anyone can object or intervene, places the sack of bloodied rags, the dead man’s effluvium and spume, fecal traces, scabs, nail filings, at his cold feet—they could be David’s own—and never cries.
“Hinei mitato shelishelomo,” Abe chants as they carry the dead man, feet first, out of the morgue and set him down, foreskin and all, in the room where Mrs. Overbeck will sit. “Behold, Solomon’s chariot, sixty stalwarts standing guard, Israel’s fiercest, hardened by war, each with his sword, swords at the ready against the terror of night.”
Mrs. Overbeck won’t go inside to the little room right away. When it’s a woman who is dead and the women wash her, everything is on time, on time, but these men, you know how they are, at least the ones in this Chevra Kadisha, Abe with his heart condition, may he live to a hundred and twenty, but a single year would surprise her—especially now that Lillian’s gone, that’s his wife—and Sammy, who still hits on Mrs. Overbeck in this shriveled shrunken state, let’s face it, though he never got over Lillian, or she him, to tell the awful truth, and poor David, and God only knows about Isaac, the schlemiel, and Ben, who sleeps underground and pretends to be a writer—she spied him dancing in the middle of a street once, all by himself, unless it was a dream—and the others and their Slivovitz and whatnot, I mean, of course they are respectful, but God only knows. So she will stand at the door in the moonlight and temporize. She visualizes the location of the bathroom in relation to the room where the met will be. It’s close by. It isn’t a problem. She should have gone before she had gone, but it’ll be soon. Think of your favorite psalm. In Death Shadow Valley, I won’t be afraid—it’s probably no worse than here. At 11:15 or so, when she usually gets home—it’s always like this after being up late—she knows she will sleep so deeply. It’s such a pleasure, at that strange hour, after watching over the dead, the sleep you have.
In the green room, by the mahogany table, in the room lined with display coffins where the men drink Slivovitz and talk about anything, Abe will say, “Read Leviticus, for heaven sakes, where Aaron’s sons take the fire from the wrong place to bring into the altar, and boom! God kills them, just like that. Now, what do you think is worse, lighting a candle funny or giving taharah over a guy with a foreskin? I tell you, we were taking our lives in our hands to do that.”
They’ve climbed out of their white hazmat suits, white like the cantor’s gown on the Day of Atonement, but with little Dow stickers over the heart. They lounge in their everyday clothes.
“I didn’t really see him sit up, did I?”—David, staring at his drink.
They will all rush to say, “No.”
“I can barely keep from crying when we come to those words from the Song of Songs,” Ben will say. “Here’s the dead man, not so pretty, maybe there’s, you know, fluids, and all the shriveled and shrunken parts, and the way the blood pools inside, you know what I mean? And here’s Abe saying, his cheeks are balsam terraces and his eyes are doves of the riverbank. It’s so beautiful. How can you not cry?”
“Ben writes stories, you know,” Jack will say. “He’s a writer,”—turning to Ben—“aren’t you?”
Ben shrugs. “Yes, I am.”
Abe says, “Well, you can’t write about this.”
“It would be disrespectful,”—Abe with a sidewise glance.
“He said he wouldn’t,” Sammy puts in.
“All right,” Abe will say, “so he wouldn’t. I’m making sure. Is that OK with you?”
Isaac gets up—“Thanks for the schnapps.”—and leaves.
“Did I offend him . . . ?” Abe sighs. “It’s all because of that goyishe schvantz.”
“The Philistines had them, you know. David in the Bible tore off a couple hundred of them for a dowry when he wanted to marry Saul’s daughter.” Sammy makes a scissors with two fingers and chops and chops in the direction of his crotch. “Two hundred is a lot of foreskins—maybe I’m remembering the number wrong. I could look it up.”
“You have to make a joke out of everything.”
Ben can’t help saying, “There’s a cathedral in Italy that, right up to a few years ago, was supposed to have Jesus’s foreskin in it. They held a parade for it every year, until somebody stole it. I wonder what they did with it.”
Abe remarks, “Mamzerim.” Bastards. Does he mean the celebrants or the thieves?
David pours himself another drink. It’s Abe’s bottle, but he doesn’t ask permission. “I could have sworn the met sat up.”
Ben: “It looked like it for a second, David. I know what you mean. The table jumped a bit. Mop threads stuck in a castor.”
“I hope there’s no mop threads in my castors when they wash me.”
Abe shoots Sammy a dirty look. “Joke about that.”
Jack yawns. It is insincere. For all the cars he has sold to people who didn’t want them, for all the glad-handing and backslapping and playing with arithmetic, he is still transparent, incapable of an effective social lie, unable to make a false gesture off the car lot. He is, deep down, a man who washes dead men, after all. He is riven with sincerity. “I gotta go put myself to bed,” he lies, doing a bad job of it, blushing.
“Too hot in the kitchen?” Abe asks him. Jack pretends not to hear. “Eecha dooma shpatch, old friend.” It’s all the Polish Abe knows. Go home and sleep. It means, drop dead, but it’s just an old joke between friends.
“Another dear departed,” Sammy quips at the sound of Jack closing the funeral home door.
“It looked to me,” says Sammy, feeling his liquor, “that, just before we shifted him into the coffin, the met was indeed starting to sit up. Maybe it has to do with the holy words we said.”
“We’ve said those words a hundred times,” says Abe, “and I guarantee you that we have not had any resurrections.”
“Maybe it was the way we said them.”
“We say them the same way, what are you talking about?”
“Maybe it was the kavana, the, I don’t know, the spirit of it tonight.”
Abe slams the table. “The spirit was the same. It’s always the same. Everything’s the same. Just forget about it, will you? It was like Ben says—a stuck castor.”
“The foreskin,” Sammy puts in slyly, between sips, “that was not the same.”
Abe shoots to his feet. “I’m getting out of here. You’re going to give me a heart attack with your mishugoss. As if it wasn’t bad enough. And what about David’s condition, for heaven’s sakes—haven’t you got any respect whatsoever?”
David says, “Maybe he wanted us to circumcise him.”
Sammy: “Now, there’s a thought. We still could . . . ‘”
Ben: “But the sh’mirah’s already begun. I mean, Mrs. Overbeck, she must be sitting with the body by now . . . “
Abe is spitting. He can’t help it when he gets excited. “Ben, you’re taking them seriously? What are you, crazy?”
Sammy: “We’ll wait till she goes to the bathroom to take a leak.”
“Woman seeps like a met,” laughs David.
Sammy: “Good one! Or like Abe from the corners of the mouth, yes? Oh, sorry, Abe. Or Ben from his eyes, ha, ha. Seepage, seepage! We’ll pry open the coffin. Snip, it’s done. It’s only four pegs, and the plank’s warped, anyway, so it never was flush. No one will know. Then we close it back up, Mrs. Overbeck returns with her empty bladder, and the met is a proper Jew. Everybody happy. Even Abe. Won’t you be happy then, Abe?”
“Stop this. We used to be friends. What have I done to you that you treat me like this? You’re still carrying that rubbish inside you? Lillian loved me, Sam. If I could have taken a pass, never mind the hurt, if I could have shunted her to you, like a bumper in a pinball machine, as God is my witness, I would have done it. But she loved me. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” Tappety tappety.
“Fact is,” says Sammy, changing his mind, “Lillian regretted marrying you from the moment you crushed the glass.”
“What do you know about it?”
“How would you know?”
“What are you saying—never mind, I don’t want to talk about it. You’re going to give me a heart attack.”
“Take a nitroglycerine.” Sammy rises. He’s heading toward the small, carpeted room, candlelit, with its plush chairs and the settee piled with prayer books, where Mrs. Overbeck watches over the dead man in the coffin pegged shut. “I have my pocket knife—it ain’t a flint, but it’ll do the job. We’ll have to decide what to do with the thing.”
David says, “You’ll need something to pry with. I have a long screwdriver in my car.”
“You’re going to give me a heart attack.” Abe pats all his pockets as if he were frisking himself.
“I’ll be in the hallway, around the corner. We’ll wait till she goes to pee.” Sammy throws back one more schnapps.
“God bless seepage. I’ll wrap the end of the screwdriver in my hanky,” David says, almost gleeful as he runs out toward the parking lot. “It won’t leave a mark.”
“Rein un shein,” sings Sammy.
Abe is panting. He stumbles and catches himself at the table as the two men vanish. “I have to go to the bathroom. I don’t feel good, Ben.” Supporting himself by the heel of one hand at the table’s edge, he pulls a phial of tiny pills from a trousers pocket. He finds his balance and moves toward the door. “They’re not going to do anything. They’re just trying to get my goat.” Reaching the doorway, he gives his weight to the casement for a moment. He wheezes. He takes a pill. He turns into the hallway.
Ben, alone at the table now, surrounded by the prows of sample coffins emerging from the walls, lifts Abe’s Slivovitz and sips a little from the bottle. He could never afford to buy a brandy like this. He wipes his mouth on a sleeve. “Well,” Ben jokes to himself, “they’re all departed now.” He pulls the tiny voice recorder from his vest pocket, from where it had rested under the Dow sticker on his hazmat suit—“I can’t do this, I can’t write this, Abe’s right,”—and nearly decides to erase it all.
There’s a ruckus down the hall as Ben walks out—Mrs. Overbeck must have gone to pee, the men are doing their mischief, and Abe, tramping to the MENS, is rasping his You’ll-give-me-a-heart-attack. None of this is Ben’s motif.
He pushes open the back door and lingers at the threshold. A gibbous moon drifts through fringes of noctilucent cloud, and he has to dance. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, he claps his hands a little, he tilts his hips, this way, that way, just enough to feel inside his belt. He sings the old rabbinic lunar charm, gazing at his moon: “We dance but never touch! We dance but never touch! We dance but never touch!” He throws in a childhood Yiddish song:
Shein vi di levanah,
Likhtik vi di shteren,
Fun himl a matanah,
Bistu mir tsugeshikt!
Down from the sky, a gift, pretty as the moon, brilliant as the stars—you come to me.
A cloud covers his beloved, and Ben stops. He looks left and right—no one has seen him dance or heard him sing. They never do.
What will they do with the foreskin? he wonders. Bury it, most likely. None of those fellows needs a dowry. He chuckles to himself, then flicks on the little recorder and says, What will they do with the foreskin? Bury it, most likely. None of those fellows needs a dowry.
The pharaohs, with their mummies and winding sheets and pyramids, preserved all they could, while Ben’s people—wood boxes, shards, and dust—leave no trace. Of course, there’s the Bible. Ben has his voice recorder and, in his cellar room, a notebook against the terror of night.
He passes through the shadowed alley behind the pizza shop. He sleeps nearby in a place with a head-high window through which he can see the feet of passersby, sandals, steel-toed work boots, stilettos, espadrilles. Abe will lie there soon enough, alongside Lillian and Sammy and Mrs. Overbeck and David and Isaac and Jack and tonight’s dead man and his foreskin and Rabbi Solomon, may he rest in peace, and Moses and Zipporah and all the circumcised prayer shawls and their fringes, some sooner, some later, it’s all the same behind the vov. The shoe styles change, but the foot traffic never stops outside the head-high window, and there’s plenty of room in the cellar.
A cat scoots under a dumpster. A lamppost flickers and hums. Listen: a shriek, probably Mrs. Overbeck, and the seethe and the whoosh of the lake.
There’s the moon.
A beautifully written story. I really enjoyed it.